Tyler Perry’s most famous character Madea is actually the least obnoxious part of his latest movie Madea’s Witness Protection. Given that Madea is Perry in drag as an overweight gray-haired woman who delights in threatening people with violence this is pretty amazing.
The Madea movies aren’t supposed to be nuanced character portraits they’re Teachable Moments. In this case it’s about shady businesses and Ponzi schemes — Bernie Madoff is even referred to by name. Although there’s no doubt we’re all feeling the repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis and will be for some time to come Madoff isn’t exactly breaking news any more. Perry also wants to have his cake and eat it too showing the greed and corruption of big companies while also offering at least one of the people at fault both the benefit of the doubt and a shot at redemption. None of it adds up and half of the movie is taken up by a tiresome group of snobs who deserve their comeuppance at the hands of Madea.
The Needlemans are a rich white family whose patriarch is inadvertently involved in a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. The mob is somehow involved — don’t ask — so the Atlanta ADA Brian (also Perry) puts them up at the safest place he knows: his Aunt Madea’s house. George played by Eugene Levy’s eyebrows is such a schmuck that he had no idea he was being set up to take the fall or that the company he worked for was stealing millions of dollars from charities. Denise Richards plays his typically brittle and much younger housewife Kate whose main interests seem to be yoga (“yoda” in Madea-speak) and carbs. They both let George’s daughter Cindy (Danielle Campbell) walk all over them and George and Kate’s son Howie (Devan Leos) is the subject of many “fat loser”-type jokes. George’s mother Barbara (Doris Roberts) is either senile or pretending to be or is just pilled out from all the Valium they give her; she’s also a horny old broad that keeps making googly eyes at Joe (Madea’s brother Brian’s father and of course Tyler Perry in old man drag). Cindy is so awful that it’s a relief when Madea lets loose on her even though it’s a truly cruel prank that sets the girl straight. They are all totally boring and incredibly annoying so much so that any time Madea or even Joe appears it’s a relief.
The other half of the Teachable Moments equation is Jake played by Romeo Miller. Jake was living a life of crime until he got straightened out and then his dad a sickly preacher played by John Amos trusted him with all the money to pay off the church mortgage. Unfortunately he invested it in a company in New York that’s no longer answering their phones. Jake tries to hold up Madea for cash after she leaves the grocery store. She gives him a sound talking-to the gist of which is he should get a job and stop trying to rob old ladies who have worked hard all their life. (True!) However he’s just trying to raise the money he lost investing in a company in New York the money his sick father gave him to pay off the church mortgage that’s now lost. In case you can’t follow the dots that would be the company George worked for that lost all the money for his dad’s church leading him to a life of robbing little old ladies for pocket change. Besides the tragic waste of Amos Marla Gibbs plays a nosy neighbor for about half a minute.
Perry’s writing shows a disturbing amount of cynicism if not downright meanness for a family movie. When Kate and Madea have a heart-to-heart about Cindy Kate confesses that Cindy thinks her dad cheated on her mom with Kate. Kate says “What kind of person do you think I am?” And Madea purrs sotto voice “A woman.” There are also plenty of jokes about Madea’s previous life as among other things a stripper especially in conjunction with her weight. (She had to use a telephone pole when she danced. Get it? ‘Cause she’s fat! Hah!) It’s unfortunate that the spoof reel that plays after the credits is more entertaining than the movie itself — even if those jokes include Charlie Sheen grabbing Madea’s boobs Madea/Perry pranking room service about the bidet and Eugene Levy making prison rape jokes.
I was one of the few people who were impressed by Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls a well-intentioned attempt to bring the feminist experimental play by Ntozake Shange to life. That didn’t compel me to seek out any of his other movies though so Madea’s Witness Protection was my first foray into the franchise that’s made him a very very rich and powerful man. The weirdness of Perry’s vision is well-documented and he has fans across the board. Unfortunately I’m just one of them.